Lego’s Refusal of Bricks to Artist Ai Weiwei Sparks Beautiful Action

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Maxelman via Flickr

Art meets accidental crowd-sourced recycling.

I’ve always kind of been a member of Team Lego. Yes, the massive use of plastic is daunting on many levels, but I've appreciated that they make creative toys that are so durable and historically consistent that they don’t require replacement regularly. All Lego would have to do is to switch-up the toys' connecting system and zillions of eventually non-relevant Legos would have to be sent to the landfill for eternity to make way for new ones, and Lego sales of replacements would likely be huge. What corporation wouldn't be tempted? Plus the Danish company has a decent recent track record with sustainability, and recently announced that they have invested $1 billion in finding a sustainable material to use instead of plastic. As far as big businesses go, I can think of worse.

But now the company is in the middle of a bit of a brouhaha. Enter Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, whose 2014-15 installation at Alcatraz Island featured a Lego floor depicting the faces of more than 175 prisoners of conscience, past and present. (Photographs of the prison Lego installation don't quite do it justice; in the flesh it was powerful.)

For a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, several million Lego bricks were ordered by curators at the museum. Lego refused the order. Why would Lego, a company that seems relatively progressive, say no to an internationally acclaimed artist?

As relayed in Weiwei's Instagram, Lego's response was as follows:

We regret to inform you that it is against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the LEGO licensing program. However, we realize that artists may have an interest in using LEGO elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art. In this connection, the LEGO Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The LEGO trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the artwork. The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the LEGO trademark. We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material. The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed the artwork/project. Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order.

I guess they are a giant global corporation after all.

The plastic hunks were to be employed in two works in the exhibit, “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei.” According to the artist, he was going to use the Legos for a re-imagining of his 1995 photo triptych titled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” In another, working title “Lego Room,” he said he planned to make mosaic portraits of 20 Australian advocates for human rights and information freedom.

“Generally speaking, as a company dedicated to delivering great creative play experiences to children,” Roar Rude Trangbaek, a spokesman for the Lego Group, replied to The New York Times, “we refrain — on a global level — from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda.”

He added, “This principle is not new – nor isolated to specific regions or projects.”

“I was quite surprised when I found out,” Weiwei said. “A company that sells pens cannot tell a writer that he or she can’t do political writing or romantic writing. It’s none of their business.”

But my story here isn’t about politicizing art materials or corporate policy, but what happened next. People started giving Weiwei their Legos! In a tale of public support with a subplot of happy recycling thrown in for good measure, people now have something to do with those ever-lasting Legos that are impossible to throw away. Which is kind of beautiful. Weiwei said he will be setting up drop-off centers for people to take their Legos, and in the meantime, it's raining Legos for Weiwei.

At the end of the day, the whole thing has become an accidental art piece on its own. And instead of Lego pumping out another few million little blocks of plastic for Weiwei, neglected toy bins across the lands will be emptied and the contents are given a voice by an artist who speaks for so many.